Making sense of Microsoft’s Windows 8 strategy

Here are two things we learn from Jensen Harris’s post of 18 May.


First, Microsoft cares more about WinRT and Metro, the new tablet-oriented user interface in Windows 8, than about the desktop. In the section entitled Goals of the Windows 8 user experience, Harris refers almost exclusively to WinRT apps. Further, he asks the question: what is the role of desktop in Windows 8?

It is pretty straightforward. The desktop is there to run the millions of existing, powerful, familiar Windows programs that are designed for mouse and keyboard. Office. Visual Studio. Adobe Photoshop. AutoCAD. Lightroom. This software is widely-used, feature-rich, and powers the bulk of the work people do on the PC today.

Does that mean the desktop is for legacy, like XP Mode in Windows 7? Harris denies it:

We do not view the desktop as a mode, legacy or otherwise—it is simply a paradigm for working that suits some people and specific apps.

He adds though that “We think in a short time everyone will mix and match” desktop and Metro apps – though he does not call them Metro apps, he calls them “new Windows 8 apps.”

Second, Microsoft considers that the poor reaction to the Consumer Preview can be fixed by tweaking the detail rather than by changing the substance of how Windows 8 is designed.

But fundamentally, we believe in people and their ability to adapt and move forward. Throughout the history of computing, people have again and again adapted to new paradigms and interaction methods—even just when switching between different websites and apps and phones. We will help people get off on the right foot, and we have confidence that people will quickly find the new paradigms to be second-nature.

In fact, this post is peppered with references to negative reactions for previous versions of Windows. Microsoft is presuming that this is normal and that history will repeat:

Although some people had critical reactions and demanded changes to the user interface, Windows 7 quickly became the most-used OS in the world.

This is revisionist, as I am sure Harris and his team are aware. The reaction to Windows 7 was mainly positive, from the earliest preview on. It was better than Windows Vista; it was better than Windows XP.

Windows Vista on the other hand had a troubled launch and was widely disliked. User Account Control and its constant approval prompts was part of the problem, but more serious was that OEMs released Vista machines with underpowered hardware further slowed down by foistware and in many cases it Vista worked badly out of the box. You could get Vista working nicely with sufficient effort, but many just stayed with Windows XP.

The failure of Vista was damaging to Microsoft, but mitigated in that most users simply skipped a version and waited for Windows 7. The situation now is more serious for Microsoft, both because of the continuing popularity of the Mac and the rise of tablets, especially Apple’s iPad.

It is precisely because of that threat that Microsoft is making such a big bet on Metro and WinRT. The reasoning is that while shipping a build of Windows that improves on 7 would please the Microsoft platform community, it would be ineffective in countering the iPad. It would also fail to address problems inherent in Windows: lack of isolation between applications, and between applications and the operating system; the complexity of application installs and the difficulty of troubleshooting them when they go wrong; and the unsuitability of Windows for touch control.

There is also a hint in this most recent post that classic Windows uses too much power:

Once we understood how important great battery life was, certain aspects of the new experience became clear. For instance, it became obvious early on in the planning process that to truly reimagine the Windows experience we would need to reimagine apps as well. Thus, WinRT and a new kind of app were born.

Another key point: Microsoft’s partnership with hardware manufacturers has become a problem, since they damage the user experience with trialware and low quality utilities. The Metro-style side of Windows 8 fixes that by offering a locked-down environment. This will be most fully realised in Windows RT, Windows on ARM, which only allows WinRT apps to be installed.

Microsoft decided that only a new generation of Windows, a “reimagining”, would be able to compete in the era of BYOD (Bring Your Own Device).

One thing is for sure: the Windows team under Steven Sinofsky does not lack courage. They have form too. Many of the key players worked on the Office 2007 Ribbon UI, which was also controversial at the time, since it removed the familiar drop-down menus that had been in every previous version of Office. They stuck by their decision, and refused to add an option to restore the menus, thereby forcing users to use the ribbon even if they disliked it. That strategy was mostly successful. Users got used to the ribbon, and there was no mass refusal to upgrade from Office 2003, nor a substantial migration to OpenOffice which still has drop-down menus.

I have an open mind about Windows 8. I see the reasoning behind it, and agree that it works better on a real tablet than on a traditional PC or laptop, or worst of all, a virtual machine. Harris says:

The full picture of the Windows 8 experience will only emerge when new hardware from our partners becomes available, and when the Store opens up for all developers to start submitting their new apps.

Agreed; but it also seems that Windows 8 will ship with a number of annoyances which at the moment Microsoft looks unlikely to fix. These are mainly in the integration, or lack of it, between the Metro-style UI and the desktop. I can live without the Start menu, but will miss the taskbar with its guide to running applications and its preview thumbnails; these remain in the desktop but do not include Metro apps. Having only full-screen apps can be irritation, and I wonder if the commitment to the single-app “immersive UI” has been taken too far. When working in Windows 8 I miss the little clock that sits in the notification area; you have to swipe to see the equivalent and the fast and fluid UI is making me work harder than before.

I believe Microsoft will listen to complaints like these, but probably not until Windows 9. I also believe that by the time Windows 9 comes around the computing landscape will look very different; and the reception won by Windows 8 will be a significant factor in how it is shaped.

18 thoughts on “Making sense of Microsoft’s Windows 8 strategy”

  1. Microsoft needs to realise that it has to treat all three form factors – desktop, tablet and phone – as equally important and design the new Windows accordingly. Windows 8 on the desktop needs to be a better desktop system than Windows 7; Metro needs to be targeted at the tablet and the phone where touch and long battery life is important – and completely irrelevant on the desktop. If they’re not careful they risk compromising the desktop and repeating the Vista experience with most users not upgrading – and asking for new machines to be down-graded.

  2. Matt, I think it may simply be beyond scope to do this in one OS release. That is to say, it would be nice to think that a WinRT overhaul for windowing/desktop applications (or WinRT-style – there’s a lot of interop issues to consider in the desktop space) can be part of Windows 9. ie an actual bona fied, unified Windows API set.

  3. Their reasoning doesn’t sound logical to me. At the time of Vista release, desktop Macs weren’t such a big threat and, even then, annoyances hurted sales. Now they seem to value entering mobile markets more than securing their most succesful product. They could end up losing both battles.

    The strategy of imposing their own views on user works because of corporative inertia. The BYOD thing seems to be in the direction of giving more power to users instead of IT departments. So it seems dubious that a “reimagining” could help them through the BYOD trend, if they upset users with changes that are motivated by the company’s commercial strategy.

  4. “I can live without the Start menu, but will miss the taskbar with its guide to running applications and its preview thumbnails;”

    But you do have it on the left side, with real-time thumbnails.

    1. @Andrei to some extent, but:

      1. You have to swipe to see it.

      2. Only the desktop appears there, not individual desktop apps.


  5. Tim, you say you have an open mind about Windows 8, still your post is mostly negative.

    I was dubios about the metro/desktop mix at first, but the more you use it the more you get to appreciate it. There are many small improvements all over the place that you start to appreciate somewhere around the same time you let go of what used to be and start to work with the changes instead of against them. Much like the Ribbon UI. If anything, people have showed that they will adapt, they hop on the iPad band wagon, that change is radically bigger than anything Windows 8 can throw at them. Granted iPads are rarely used for “real” work as much as Desktop PCs are, but they are used more and more.

    And on top of that, there is nothing that forces you to adopt the metro side of things, at least not yet, the desktop is there and you can stay in it all the time if you wish (except for the start menu, but that transition is so smooth in the consumer preview it actually feels like a better start menu).

    The Windows 8 desktop mode to me is a better desktop system than Windows 7. It has Hyper-V, better accelerated remote desktop, better IE browser, better file system performance, nicer update/patching procedures, much improved startup time, connected live services, profile sync, vastly improved battery times on my laptop compared to win 7, the live tiles in the start menu quickly grow on you, much like I expect people grow into the windows phone. I have yet to see the final changes to the desktop, with toned down aero. I do like the aero feel, it makes the desktop feel just that, airy, spacey, I hope they can retain that feeling.

  6. The problem with MS, IMHO, is that they still have no clue why Vista failed. Vista was a total wreck (in the wrong direction), but ask them, probably they will say it was a marketing failure or it was ahead of its time. [They will say the same after Win8].

    We have Win8 today as it is because MS never understood why Vista failed. (My other theory is that key positions are under pay from Apple). There is no was you can make sense of their strategy because a non-existing strategy simply doesn’t make sense.

    I wouldn’t normally care for their ‘stupidity’ but I happen to develop for Windows (since 3.0), and this time I will really need to migrate to another platform.

  7. Burak:
    MS definitely know why Vista failed, because they fixed exactly that and more in Windows 7. A better explanation would be that what the IT press mentioned as the reasons where not the correct reasons. Vista was never as bad as it rumour said it was, it is essentially all that Windows 7 is, except that they fixed a few resource issues. If it is one key take away why Vista failed it is that people want “fast and fluid”

    But perhaps instead of general statements and threat of leaving a platform you should share your insights. it would definitely be more interesting to read..

    I don’t understand, in WinRT you have the taskbar on the side for all metro apps, in desktop mode you have the taskbar where it has always been. And alt-tab works by showing previews of everything that it always did on top of that? It actually makes much more sense to not show all apps in the metro taskbar than it would showing them, because if you are using that taskbar you are likely in touch mode, for keyboard/mouse mode you won’t use it anyway.

    And you don’t need to swipe to get to the metro taskbar? Unless of course you are in touch only mode and can’t press Win+tab. But as I said in touch metaphor it makes little to no sense to even have the desktop running, the opposite works and then you usually Alt-tab where you see all.

    1. @Niclas in Windows 7 I can see instantly which other apps are running and switch in one click on the taskbar. This is not the case in Windows 8 CP. In Metro there is no visible taskbar until you swipe or press a shortcut, and it only shows Metro apps plus one preview for the desktop. In desktop the taskbar does not show Metro apps.

      Why would you not have both Metro and desktop apps running? I do this all the time in the CP, both on the Slate and on the desktop.


  8. The last two or three years have been quite liberating.
    I’m really thankful for not having to care about Microsoft’s opinions anymore. If they want a Frankenstein, so be it.
    I’m happy with the alternatives.

  9. > But perhaps instead of general statements and threat of leaving a platform you should share your insights. it would definitely be more interesting to read..

    First of all, it’s no treat. I’m fully aware that my staying or leaving the platform won’t have any impact on Microsoft. It will not be easy for *me* at all, that’s one reason I feel angry about the current mess. And MS is too big, it will take many years of every wrong decision until MS becomes history. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same thing for me and me small team.

    I will share my insights as a professional service, not for free I’m afraid.

    But here’s a free 3 step plan:

    Step 1:
    – fire all current Win8 team and anyone who *sincerely* thinks Win8 is better than WinXP, and anyone who *sincerely* thinks Ribbon UI is something acceptable, and anyone who defends Vista and *sincerely* classifies it other than ‘total shit’. When in doubt, fire anyone named ‘Steven’.
    – don’t fire them but keep them as a separate secondary team. (MS is big enough to keep 2 separate teams working on OSes, I think).

    Step 2:
    – Hire some sane people as the main OS team. Start over. It should only take about 12 months to have a great OS. Yes, it is this simple.

    Step 3:
    (12 months later)
    – If you have chosen to keep 2 teams at step 1, you can now fire the 2nd team. Try to fire them in small packs so that they find good jobs at competitors (which will ruin them in the long run).

  10. Burak:
    You share no insight as to what is wrong, Windows 8 is in so many aspects than can be written in a blog comment field better than WinXp, but to name a few important ones kernel IO/memory and VM handling is vastly improved to create possibility to properly prioritize, drivers are properly signed and the graphics pipeline is mostly moved out of kernel mode, the desktop is using proper composition and performance for 3D (direct3d) windowed application is vastly improved and user are not running by default as administrators anymore, security features are vastly enchanced, multicore handling is vastly improved, proper SSD disk handling, security in depth, that’s just a few technical reasons. Not to forget IE9. Windows 8 specifically brings proper package handling that Linux get right years ago and “native” XAML is no small thing, Hyper-V is another very great addition.

    From the useability perspective the changes are more obvious, the start menu is so much faster to get things done that is mind boggling that windows XP lived with its metaphor for so long, home networking is made easy through home groups. There is actually something you can call touch support in windows 7 and even more so in windows 8, aero snap is a huge gain.

    And believe it or not research shows that ribbon UI is faster to learn and more efficient to use when you have learnt it.

    I would still like for you to share reasons you don’t like it, not just a dislike for changes or sweeping comments that you need to be paid to explain but complain for free, as that adds little to a fruitful debate. The technique you use has a name which is frequently used in one of the two camps you will have to switch.

  11. Tim:
    Let me put it this way, why do you use metro apps when in desktop mode and vice versa? I have yet to find a use for metro apps in desktop mode, except for fun to play around with them, and I find using desktop mode when on a touch device makes no sense and I am rather happy no real estate of my rather small screen is used up by an ever present taskbar.

    I can see your point that you cannot see all the apps in metro, that you recently opened, they are not running however, and pick switch between them without swiping. However the Metro metaphor is not for multi window kind of workflows, it is for slate kind of consumer work flows where you mostly stay within one app or use the charms or contracts in the app to navigate around. Remember Microsofts research showed that in desktop mode people mostly had around 2-3 windows opened, in Metro you can easily and quickly swipe between 3 apps without getting lost without ever going through the taskbar on the side.

    1. @Niclas mixing Metro and desktop happens by default since Metro apps are the default document handler for several common file types including .jpg and .pdf. You can change this but how many of your typical 3-app users will do that?

      I also hope that some really good Metro apps will turn up; if not, it casts doubt on the whole project.

      Oh, and there is Wordament of course 🙂

  12. Microsoft has a few problems today:

    1. Metro apps are going to be ranked 3rd in priority after iOS and Android.

    2. While MS could try pushing for new Enterprise apps to be written to Metro so that it can target desktop and tablet, this is not going to happen very soon because Metro doesn’t run on Windows 7 or Vista.

    3. Furthermore, Metro apps have a very restrictive API, with no database access and even local storage looks rather bare. This makes it even less suited for Enterprise development.

    Overall, this doesn’t bode well for MS.

  13. Niclas > And believe it or not research shows that ribbon UI is faster to learn and more efficient to use when you have learnt it.

    I would rather believe the research was flawed, researchers were biased or blackmailed or had motives against Microsoft and/or humanity.

    Even seeing a screenshot of Ribbon UI hurts my eyes! (Not as a figure of speech, literally, a few tens of seconds of it feels like I’ve read some hundreds of pages without my prescription glasses [this doesn’t happen with Metro UI]). I invite MS to research this too.

    (Here’s my theory: Ribbon UI sucks in so many ways and on so many levels, probably I subconsciously feel like it’s an insult to my intelligence).

    [As I’ve mentioned, currently I’m not interested in a free fruitful debate where I spend my time and get nothing back, as I don’t have much free time these days. I just couldn’t resist the temptation to post about my own anecdotal experience with the Ribbon UI].

  14. Tim:
    On that part I agree fully, however I have changed that as it make no sense to be swapped into a Metro app that basically .. sucks.. I too sincerely hope they will show a good Metro app soon, so far the mail, calender and every other Metro replacement app really really looks bad in comparison to what they already have on the desktop.

    I am dubios about Metro’s success as a whole, not really because it is a bad idea, mostly because it is copying, following is seldom a good idea, leading is what you want. However in Microsoft’s case, copying, extending and executing with better excellence than the competition has worked for them before.

    Chui number 2 bullet I think is critical, but perhaps the LoB developer aren’t worth it and they are slightly sacrificed, in essence Microsoft can afford this as SL5 is good enough for anything someone need to do if you can do it Windows/Mac only, if you need multiplatform SL won’t hack it anyway.

    I hope the people that took the HTML drug at Microsoft snap out of it again and they start to spread their bets better.

  15. Chui is exactly right. WinRT/Metro is a new proprietary technology with zero users and few developers, as yet limited and immature, coming from a company that just nonchalantly ditched its previous set of massively hyped proprietary technologies. Metro works only on one unreleased OS and competes with well-established ecosystems on both mobile and desktop, without being obviously superior to any of them.

    The only way I can see to push Metro adoption is by selling Office tablets at bargain-bin prices; but Metro Office is not the “real” Office and Android/iPad have similar solutions. Otherwise nobody needs Metro, anymore than anyone needed Zune or Windows Phone, and it might well fail in the same manner: total consumer disinterest, in spite of whatever slight advantages it might have.

    This is not necessarily related to the fate of Windows 8 itself, by the way, which is likely to see at least some success on x86 desktops/laptops. But these customers will be running traditional desktop applications, not Metro apps, and they will regard the occasional Metro intrusion as a mere nuisance.

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